Scripture about relevance

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A remarkable Proverb explains exactly in what sense metaphors (also called “parables”) are misused by people who do not think clearly about what they are saying.

To be helpful, a metaphor must correspond to the reality it is attempting to illustrate.

For example, the 23rd Psalm, quoted in America at every funeral, lists 10 ways God cares for His people the way a shepherd cares for his sheep. The metaphor corresponds to the reality illustrated by the metaphor, in these 10 ways. An example of a metaphor that does not correspond to reality would be the 23rd psalm with some other animal substituted for a sheep like a dog, monkey, or elephant. Some of those 10 comparisons might still be true, but not all of them.

It might be said of a dog that his master “restoreth my soul”, but a dog cares nothing for “green pastures” unless they are full of rabbits. A dog doesn’t want his master to shield it from “the shadow of death” with the master’s “rod” - a weapon of war, or his “staff” - a hook like a leash to keep the animal from straying into danger, because the dog runs eagerly to danger. A dog appreciates his master’s “table”, but cares nothing about it whenever there are “enemies” to bark at. “Still waters” are meaningless to a dog; while a sheep can’t drink from churning waters because sheeps suck water so that waves would break their suction and get in their noses, dogs can drink from anything.

For these reasons “God cares for us like a master for his dog” is a worse metaphor, its similarities to reality overwhelmed by its differences. A well selected parable/metaphor is like the reality it illustrates in several ways and is little disturbed by striking differences.

With that short review of what makes a good metaphor, consider this Proverb about good and bad metaphors:

Proverbs 26:7 The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools.

This translation, the KJV (King James Version), explains exactly in what sense a “fool” misuses metaphors: the illustration he selects is not “equal” to – does not correspond to – the reality he offers to explain, in the same way the legs of a crippled man are usually unequal in strength and often in length. Because of that imbalance, a crippled man walks awkwardly, if he can walk at all.

Put another way, a good metaphor must “stand” on two “legs” which must correspond to each other: there must be a familiar situation that everyone understands, applied to something very hard to understand in a way that makes it easier to understand. Jesus frequently used the metaphor “father” to illustrate the love for us and commitment to our best interests of God. “Tyrant” would have communicated an entirely different relationship, and thus is entirely incorrect, unless God is better described by the Koran than by the Bible.

So what does this verse have to do with “relevance”? Does this verse apply to other literature besides metaphors/parables?

To say the two “legs” of a metaphor – the illustration, and the reality illustrated – must “correspond” to each other, is another way of saying the one must be “relevant” to the other. In a broad sense, all words are metaphors: all words “represent” parts of reality. No word is the thing it is about. So in the broad sense, this Proverb applies to all language. It appeals to all of us to carefully select the words that best correspond to Truth.